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Stalin’s Legacy: The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

Nagorno-Karabakh is a highly contested, landlocked region in the South Caucasus of the former Soviet Union. The present-day conflict has its roots in the decisions made by Joseph Stalin when he was the acting Commissar of Nationalities for the Soviet Union during the early 1920s. In April 1920, Azerbaijan was taken over by the Bolsheviks;  Armenia and Georgia were taken over in 1921. To garner public support, the Bolsheviks promised Karabakh to Armenia. At the same time, in order to placate Turkey, the Soviet Union agreed to a division under which Karabakh would be under the control of Azerbaijan. With the Soviet Union firmly in control of the region, the conflict over the region died down for several decades.

When the USSR began to collapse, the question of Nagorno-Karabakh re-emerged. In August 1987 Karabakh Armenians sent petition for union with Armenia tens of thousands of signatures to Moscow. The struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh escalated after both Armenia and Azerbaijan attained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. By the end of 1993, the conflict had caused thousands of casualties and created hundreds of thousands of refugees on both sides.

By May 1994, the Armenians were in control of 14% of the territory of Azerbaijan. At that stage, for the first time during the conflict, the Azerbaijani government recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as a third party in the war, and started direct negotiations with the Karabakh authorities. As a result, a cease-fire was reached on May 12, 1994 through Russian negotiations. Unfortunately, tensions heated up yet again in April 2016 when Azerbaijan claimed to have killed and wounded more than 100 Armenian soldiers.

Ambassador Rudolf Perina was named the U.S. Co-Chair of the Minsk Group, which was created to negotiate an end to the conflict.  In an interview with Stu Kennedy beginning in December 2006, Ambassador Perina discusses the background of the conflict, the Group’s failed attempts to reach a lasting peace, as well as his conclusion that the best one can hope for is to merely stabilize the region.

You can also read his views on the conflicts in Transnistria and South Ossetia and the U.S. effort to supply Armenia with heating oil in 1994.


“The meeting ended in failure”

PERINA:  My title was Special Negotiator for Eurasian Conflicts, which basically meant conflicts in the former Soviet Union… I was appointed right when I left Moldova in September of 2001 and I held the job until May of 2004. I made 29 trips to Europe within that period in connection with this job….

It was a job with the rank of Ambassador, though I did not have to go through confirmation because I already had the title. I worked simultaneously on resolution of four of the conflicts in the former Soviet Union. These were the Nagorno- Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the two conflicts in Georgia resulting from the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the Transnistrian conflict in Moldova.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was the major responsibility in the portfolio, and the one I spent the bulk of my time on… The four conflicts I did work on where all different in nature and had different mediation procedures so it is probably best if we discuss them one by one.

With regard to the major conflict I dealt with, Nagorno-Karabakh, people felt they had just been burned. In April 2001 there had been a large meeting organized by the U.S., by my predecessor Carey Cavanaugh, in Key West, Florida. [President] Robert Kocharian of Armenia and [President] Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan attended, as did the new Secretary of State Colin Powell. There was a lot of media attention and expectation that an agreement would be signed.

Well, the meeting ended in failure, and it was an embarrassment for Powell and the Bush Administration. Carey Cavanaugh spent the next six months trying to revive the negotiating effort but could not do so. So when I came in, there was a sense that any progress was unlikely in the near future. It was a little akin to when I went to Belgrade in that there was a deep, pessimism about future prospects. I like those kinds of challenges, however, because you have no place to go but up.

Roots of the Conflict and the OSCE Negotiation Process

Nagorno-Karabakh is the most significant conflict still in the Caucasus and the most dangerous unresolved conflict that broke out when Soviet Union dissolved. It actually has far older roots and a complex history and the conflict started even before the Soviet Union broke up. But the worst fighting took place roughly from 1991 to 1994 between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

It was a bloody war, and the casualty figures are disputed but probably were about 20,000 killed and 60,000 wounded, with close to a million refugees. Even though Nagorno-Karabakh itself only had a population of about 200,000, the refugees came from Armenians who fled Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis displaced from Armenia. It was a serious war.

The region of Nagorno-Karabakh itself had a majority Armenian population but was made an autonomous oblast in Azerbaijan by Stalin in 1923. As the Soviet Union weakened, the Armenian population did not want to remain within Azerbaijan and declared independence in 1991. This led to the war which really then became a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The worst fighting stopped with a ceasefire in 1994, and the Armenians have since then controlled both Nagorno-Karabakh and a large area of land around it as well.

Until the conflict is somehow resolved, the international community considers that Nagorno- Karabakh is still a part of Azerbaijan, and that is U.S. policy as well. No country, not even Armenia, has thus far recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent country. So that is the situation on the ground.

Now as for the mediation mechanism, the organization that has been tasked from the very beginning to try to help find a solution is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, and specifically a sub-group of countries called the Minsk Group.

The Minsk Group in turn agreed on countries referred to as the “Co-Chairs” of the Minsk Group to serve as specific mediators to help the two sides find a solution. For a long time the Co-Chairs were Russia and Sweden but then that arrangement was changed in 1997, and a troika of Co-Chairs was agreed upon from France, Russia and the United States. So that is the history in a nutshell. I was appointed as the U.S. representative to the Minsk Group and thus one of the three Co-Chair mediators.

The French and the Russians also appointed Ambassadors approximately at my level but interestingly the Russians also had a First Deputy Foreign Minister who took an interest in the conflict and participated in many of the trips and negotiating sessions. Thus the Russians often had the most senior delegation member among the Co-Chairs because they had a person who was number two or three in the Foreign Ministry. His name was Vyacheslav Trubnikov, and he was appointed First Deputy Foreign Minister in 2000….

One of the interesting things about him was that he worked in the Foreign Ministry but during Soviet times had actually been a KGB officer. He freely admitted this and made no effort to hide it. He was in fact proud that he had risen to the level of Colonel in the KGB.

Anyway, to get back to the negotiations, there had over the years been many proposals by the Minsk Group Co-Chairs to find a solution and each one had been rejected by one side or the other. They included the basic ways one can solve a conflict like this: mediation, territorial exchange, autonomy, confederation and so on. The Key West approach, which was sort of a land for peace swap, also failed. Ironically, most of these deals failed over what by an outsider could be considered secondary issues, issues like the status of the corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh since they are not contiguous.

This was the case also in Key West, although there is debate still on whether the leaders really see these issues as important or just make the secondary issues deal-breakers because they get cold feet on the whole approach and just want to get out of it. Key West, for example, was a very good deal for the Armenian side, probably the best deal they had ever been offered.

But Azerbaijani President Aliyev started raising objections on secondary issues, and Kocharian did not show any flexibility to accommodate him, so it all came apart, and it was a real shame. Things really seemed at a dead end.

This is where I took over and tried to figure out how to move forward. I was the new Co-Chair. The Russians and French were a bit burned out by Key West, and they looked to me, to the U.S., for new ideas. For a few months, I did try to see if it was at all possible to resurrect the Key West approach but in fact it was not. The two Presidents were in a bad mood. They were angry at one another for the failure of Key West, and accusing each other of bad faith.

I realized we might be facing a real lull in negotiation before new ideas could be developed. But a lull could be very dangerous in terms of public perceptions in Azerbaijan. The Azeris were the side most frustrated with the status quo. They saw their land as occupied and wanted progress in resolving this.

If they had no perception of an ongoing negotiation, then the Azeri public might start concluding that war was the only way to change things. For this reason it was important to maintain a process, at least an ongoing dialogue that showed people the sides were still talking with one another.

I laid out this idea to the other Co-Chairs at a meeting in Washington in December 2001. I said that we had to demand that the two Presidents agree to regularly-scheduled meetings at a neutral location to which they would send their personal representatives. If the representatives did nothing but stare at each other for a day, so be it.

But we would force them to continue having meetings and keep the structure of a process in place. The two other Co-Chairs agreed, and we started sounding out the two sides. They were both very receptive because they also understood that a visible process of negotiation was in their interest.

To be sure, there were some hitches. At first, the Armenian side insisted that the Karabakh Armenians had to be included. Recent talks had all been just between Aliyev and Kocharian, and we knew that Aliyev would not agree to including two Armenian reps. Kocharian dropped this, and other problems were worked out.

Restarting Peace Talks

During a visit that we the Co-Chairs made to Yerevan and Baku in March 2002, the two presidents formally agreed to start new negotiations through their Personal Representatives. We later agreed that these would take place in Prague, and this was the start of what came to be called the “Prague Process” which is the foundation of the talks that continue to the present day….

We agreed among the Co- Chairs that we wanted these new talks near Vienna, which is the headquarters of the OSCE, but not directly in Vienna where other Minsk Group country delegations might try to get involved. We also wanted the talks in Eastern rather than Western Europe just because it would be less expensive, and the OSCE would be paying all the costs of the meetings. It basically came down to Warsaw, Prague or Budapest….The Co-Chairs agreed on Prague and so did the Armenians and Azeris….

Initially, each President nominated a Personal Representative at the deputy foreign minister level. For the Armenians it was Tatoul Markarian, later an Armenian Ambassador to Washington, and for the Azeri side it was Araz Azimov. The first meeting of the Prague process took place at Stirin Palace on May 13-15, 2002….

We started again exploring ideas and options for a solution. The talks really started almost from the beginning. But this was the process I was involved in for the next two years. As the Prague Process continued, it changed a little in format. We began meeting in other cities as well with the Presidents and Foreign Ministers. Toward the end of my tour, the Prague Process was upgraded when the Presidents nominated their Foreign Ministers, rather than Deputy Foreign Ministers, as their representatives…

The last Minsk Group meeting I had was in Prague in April 2004 when the Armenian and Azeri foreign ministers met as the Personal Representatives. One thing I should clarify. When I said the Co-Chairs were mediators that was perhaps misleading. The role of the Co-Chairs was not to mediate in the sense of to arbitrate. We were more in the role of facilitators, helping to come up with ideas but not in a position to impose them on either side. We were there to be helpful but we could not force a solution.

Q: Was there a problem for you and for the French rep because there are such large Armenian communities and lobbies in the U.S. and France? Was this a problem for Azerbaijan? 

PERINA:  The largest group of Armenians outside of Armenia is probably in Russia. The Azeris knew all this and probably were not happy with it, but they trusted us. They knew they had their own sources of influence, which included their strategic location and their oil. The Armenians in fact believed that the international community tended to favor Azerbaijan because of the oil factor.

The Azeris also felt that international law was on their side. Nagorno-Karabakh was considered legally a part of Azerbaijan by all three Co- Chairs. So the Azeris argued sovereignty, while the Armenians argued the right of self determination and self-defense for Nagorno-Karabakh. Each side had different assets and a different approach, but the Co-Chairs tried to be fair to both. Our position was that any solution that the two sides could agree upon would be acceptable to us. We were there to help the two sides find such a solution.

The Armenian side was holding all the land so they were much more a status quo power than Azerbaijan. The problem for the Armenians was that they were landlocked and surrounded on most of their border by Turkey and Azerbaijan, who had closed borders and imposed a trade blockade as a result of the war. There was a real economic cost from this for the Armenians. For Azerbaijan, the main problem was that about 15% of what they saw as their land was under foreign occupation. They wanted the land back.

The refugee problem also put political pressure on Baku. There were about half a million refugees from each side as a result of the war. The Armenians had largely integrated their refugee population, but the Azeris had not. They still claimed they had several hundred thousand living in camps.

At one point, we the Co-Chairs visited an Azeri refugee camp, and it was really appalling to see the conditions under which these families lived ten years after the war. They were living under terrible conditions in these crowded refugee compounds.

Of course, the fact is that the Azerbaijani government purposely kept them so for political reasons. They wanted them as evidence of what an injustice had been done to the Azeri side. So after a decade they had not integrated them, even though Azerbaijan certainly had the resources from oil revenues to do so.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a dangerous conflict because it’s one of the few stalemated conflicts where there are no peacekeeping troops to separate the sides. What separates the two armies are enormous mine fields and trenches and snipers. There are still a few soldiers on both sides killed almost monthly by sniper fire. Obviously, this is an uneasy truce that can easily break down.

The first time I visited Nagorno-Karabakh, we physically crossed the front lines from Azerbaijan into Nagorno-Karabakh. It was a revealing but very difficult experience. It had to be worked out with both sides, of course. Both sides had to clear a path through the minefields. We then walked for several hundred yards along this path, which was only about a yard wide and marked with a string, in single file and carrying our suitcases. I could literally see some of these mines sticking out of the ground on both sides of the path. It was frightening.

Worst of all, one of the Azeri soldiers who was clearing the minefield triggered a mine and lost a leg about 15 minutes before we crossed. We just heard an explosion and commotion and then learned what happened. We arranged through the OSCE to give some monetary compensation to the soldier and to his family but how can you compensate someone for the loss of a leg?

After that, I told the other Co-Chairs that it was the first and last time I would cross in this fashion because it was not worth the cost of people getting hurt. The Azeris agreed that we could go into Nagorno-Karabakh from the Armenian side, even though politically they did not like it.

There were a number of reasons why the talks didn’t progress. One of them was that both sides felt that time was on their side. The Azeris felt they were going to get all of this incredible oil revenue and they would be able to increase their military strength and overwhelm the Armenians who were losing population through emigration and in bad economic straits. On the other hand, the Armenians also felt that time was on their side simply because they were holding the land and creating a type of fait accompli. One Armenian said to me, “In a generation, how many young Azeris will want to die for Nagorno-Karabakh?”

“The most you can hope for is stabilizing this conflict rather than really resolving it”

But both sides were wrong in thinking that time worked for them. The Azeris were wrong in thinking that oil money translates easily into military prowess. If that were true, the Middle East would look very different than it does today. It is just not that simple. But the Armenians were also wrong in thinking that people in this part of the world forget old grudges and conflicts. In fact, these issues are passed remarkably from generation to generation, as is the case among Armenians themselves. So both sides were mistaken in their views but it made resolution of the conflict very difficult.

Another complication we had in the talks was that in December 2003 President Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan died. He passed away in the U.S., in the Cleveland Clinic, where he was being treated for heart problems that he had had for many years.

He had arranged things so that his son Ilham Aliyev would be the likely successor as President, but we still lost about a year through the whole process of transferring power from the old Aliyev to the son. It was also a setback because the older Aliyev was an extremely powerful figure in Azerbaijan. We always assumed that he, if anyone, had the political strength to make the kinds of compromises that would be needed for a settlement.

The son Ilham was politically weaker and had acquired a reputation as a bit of a playboy and not a serious leader. However, I must say that when he became President and the Co-Chairs started working with him, we were all very impressed by how intelligent and capable he actually was. He was a serious and thoughtful interlocutor. That was a welcome surprise, although we still lost a lot of time with the transfer of leadership….

Q: So what was the status of the talks when your assignment ended? 

PERINA:  Well, I am glad you ask that because in fact it was not all bleak. We did make some progress, and it stemmed from an idea I got when reading about the EU-managed referendum on independence in Montenegro. It occurred to me that the concept of a referendum as a way of dealing with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict had not been explored in previous negotiation attempts.

I first raised the idea one evening in July 2002 on the grounds of the Stirin Palace with the Armenian representative, Tatoul Markarian. This was during the second formal meeting of the Prague Process. He seemed very skeptical but said he would report it to his boss, Foreign Minister Oskanian.  A few days later he drew me aside and said that the Armenian side was not interested in this approach. I assumed it was because the Armenians were still hoping to somehow resurrect Key West. In any case, I thought the referendum idea was dead.

But then about a year later, both Markarian and Oskanian started telling me that they would be interested in exploring this. They even started asking me to put it formally on the table. I think it was because the Azerbaijani message got through that there was no way in the world Baku would return to the Key West approach.

We sounded out the Azeri side about the referendum, and they also were initially very skeptical. Then in late 2003 Aliyev told us, that is to say the Co-Chairs, that he was willing to discuss this idea. Agreement on this approach led to the elevation of the Prague talks to the level of Foreign Minister.

By the time I had my last meeting as a Minsk Group Co-Chair with the Azeri and Armenian Foreign Ministers in April 2004 in Prague, the referendum approach was the major one on the table. In fact, despite a lot of permutations since then, it is basically the approach that my successor Steve Mann worked on and his successor Matt Bryza has worked on. Unfortunately though, as is obvious, it also has not brought any resolution of the conflict, at least not so far.

The way I imagined it was that all of the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh prior to the conflict who were still living would be eligible to vote. There apparently were registration lists from the Soviet days that would make it possible to identify them. There would be polling places in Azerbaijan for the refugees, and so on.

It would be difficult but it was possible, and the OSCE would have organized the voting. In all likelihood, the Armenians who were about three-quarters of the population of Karabakh before the war would have won the referendum but the occupied territories around Karabakh would have been returned to Azerbaijan in any case. So the outcome would have been similar to Key West but more managed and in response to a more acceptable process, i.e. a referendum, rather than just the result of a war. This would have been a final resolution of the conflict.

The way the referendum idea developed after I left, however, was somewhat different. It became a means to postpone a final resolution of the conflict to a referendum many years down the road but to set up an agreed interim solution that would stabilize the conflict and allow the occupied territories to be returned to Azerbaijan and the economic blockade of Armenia to be lifted.

Determining the final status of Karabakh would thus be kicked down the road but under terms that all agreed upon and that would stabilize the situation. It was a fair approach. Sometimes freezing a conflict under agreed terms can be a way of resolving it, for all practical purposes.

Q: Does Nagorno-Karabakh have a land connection to Armenia? 

PERINA:  No, not geographically. This was another big problem. The Armenians were holding a land corridor from the war that connected the two but the corridor was outside of Nagorno-Karabakh proper.

So the question of what corridor could be agreed upon in a settlement was an issue. The Armenians of course wanted a corridor with the most security, something that would have more or less the same status as Karabakh. For Azerbaijan, this was clearly both a political problem and a practical one since it would divide regions within Azerbaijan unless it could be crossed and also used by Azerbaijani citizens.

This was one of the issues that led to the failure of Key West. It is an issue that comes up with every proposed resolution scheme, but it will have to be part of any final resolution.

Q: How was team cooperation among the three Co-Chairs? Could you work well with the French and Russians? 

PERINA:  I have to tell you that in this case we worked very well together, all three of us. This may have been because it was a conflict that no one could really control, not even the Russians. It was a true indigenous conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan….

With Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia could possibly block a settlement but it could not make one happen. Nobody could force a settlement on the Armenians and the Azeris. It was too big and too emotional an issue for both sides. So there was less opportunity for Russia to pursue its own agenda. With the French, I think we were very lucky with the negotiators. The first French Ambassador I worked with, Philippe de Suremain, was absolutely first-rate. He later became the French Ambassador to Kiev.

Sometimes the three of us… Co- Chairs, were telling one another that if we could find a solution to this conflict it would be an important symbol of the United States, Russia and the European Union, as represented by France, jointly resolving a real international problem.

It was a nice idea but it did not work, though the fault was not lack of Co-Chair cooperation. The problem was the complexity of the problem and the intransigence of the parties. My own personal opinion now is that for the time being probably the most you can hope for is stabilizing this conflict rather than really resolving it….